Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Thursday, June 13, 2002

 

Axioms



One of my axioms about technology is that any given new, revolutionary, technology has to be 5x better than the old to replace it. The more catagories you push that 5x figure into, the better your chances. Case in point - Strongarm based handhelds have, in less than 2 years, begun to outsell palm based ones. Why? They have 4x more memory (32MB minimum), 6x more processor power (206 mhz clock vs 32), and 5x more flash. It was obvious to me when I saw the first sample boards using this chipset, over two years ago, that the palm chipset for PDAs was doomed.

Similarly, due to 5x price/performance advantages of the x86 part, massive cost savings on licenses, and 5x improvements in overall reliability, the film industry seems to be making a mass move to x86 based GNU/Linux on both their render farms and their artistic workstations. A recent article in Linux Journal talks about the wholesale replacement of NT and SGI based workstations with Intel based ones.

It is rare to see revolutions in technology that are this clearcut. For example, Intel's new Xscale is a merely evolutionary, not revolutionary, upgrade of the strongarm (SA) part. Intel got lucky with the SA, and to this day doesn't seem to understand the advantages of SOC designs in small form factors. The doubled clock is not a big enough upgrade to really supplant the SA. I predict Xscale takeup into PDAs will be slow until we see full integration of the Xscale into something as compact as the SA is, and new features and functionality that exceed it (say, for example, USB 2.0 host mode).

Sometimes evolutionary changes ultimately lead to revolutions. Moore's law means that there can potentially be a 5x revolution in cpu/memory/flash design every 3.5 years. Flash memory chips have finally reached the point where they can supplant hard disks in many low end applications (although admittedly, todays prices reflect a temporary oversupply), as density has finally reached useful sizes - with 512MB possible in a 2 1/2 inch form factor. Flash chips already had advantages in power consumption, & speed over conventional hard disks, but price and capacity were limiting factors. Until last year, anything over 16MB was uncommon. Today, 64MB flash is at a sweet spot, according to pricewatch. It's only 26 bucks, 3x cheaper than even the cheapest hard drive you can buy today.

Today, under Linux. you can build a pretty functional word processor, web browser, email client (or server), and even a wireless router blogger/router/vpn box in 64MB of flash, and still have plenty of room left over to write hundreds of documents and store thousands of emails. The gigabyte race in the hard drive market and the massive bloat of common pc software have left people with the impression that you actually need all this space to do useful work, which is simply untrue. You can fit many a term paper into a megabyte of flash. I got through college on 360k floppies alone.

I'm building a little crusoe based machine just like I describe above, using MontaVista's cross development tools. The results so far are impressive - I'm waiting for the battery to die on the box I'm playing with - I'm going on a couple days now.

Nope, it's not a full fledged system (in particular, if you are a MS Feature-Freak), but it's good enough to meet the majority of my needs, and even a veteran MS-word user would be able to get by in it.

The machine is totally silent. I put a good feeling wireless keyboard and mouse on it, which boosts my mobile productivity. It's a little larger than the laptop, but still fits into my laptop bag. It's got 802.11b and VPN capability so I can do useful work in a coffee shop. X windows so I can run applications from my desktop at the office. It's rather nice.

This gets me to another axiom, somewhat inspired by the Innovator's Dilemma, a wonderful book that I will write about from time to time. I call it: "The Rule of Good Enough". What I got is "good enough" to totally replace one of my desktops and my laptop, for what I do, and has compelling advantages over both. It has rough edges, sure.

More news as it happens.




 
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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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